College Prep Results

The Good and Bad of the PSAT for the Average Test Taker


(If you missed the article on the PSAT for National Merit Scholarships, you can find it here.)

Most students will take the PSAT this October with no expectation of earning National Merit recognition for high scores. For the average test taker the PSAT presents an opportunity to practice testing, identify strengths and weaknesses, and begin incorporating standardized test results into the college search process—all positive outcomes. But the PSAT can include some negative consequences that students and parents should understand.

The PSAT or Preliminary SAT is given each October. For the highest scoring students, the PSAT offers prospects of National Merit recognition, but for the other 90-95% of test takers, it is just a practice test. This is both good and bad.

The Good

There are a lot of good things students and families can gain by participating in the PSAT.

Good: Colleges never use PSAT scores to make admissions decisions. This means a student can get an honest snapshot of his or her anticipated SAT scores without worry that those scores will be sent to colleges later in the admissions process.

Good: PSAT results show students’ strengths and weaknesses in testing and offer suggestions for improvement.

Good: PSAT scores are now on a similar scale to the SAT scores so families can compare results with the averages at colleges they consider. Remember the new SAT is back to two sections: reading / writing and math. Scores range from 200 to 800 per section, so the new perfect score is 1600.

Because the PSAT is just a little shorter (15 minutes) and a little easier (couple fewer questions and not quite as many really hard ones) the scores are scaled downward. Students can score between 160 and 760 on the PSAT. The missing 40 points per section are intended to show students there is still some work to be done between the PSAT and the SAT.

Students can use PSAT scores for comparison as they learn more about college admissions requirements. A 10th grader who scored a 720 in reading / writing (R/W) and a 460 in math can compare those results to the average scores at schools on her list:

  • Elon University (NC): 610-690 (R/W) & 580-670 Math
  • William & Mary (VA): 680-750 (R/W) & 650-760 Math
  • Stanford (CA): 730-790 (R/W) & 730-800 Math
  • Elizabethtown College (PA): 540-660 (R/W) & 530-640 Math
  • Texas State: 500-600 (R/W) & 510-580 Math

This student can quickly conclude that her math score needs work. Obviously, a student in 9th or 10th grade who has not completed Algebra I and Geometry will improve simply by gaining the basic concepts taught in class. Some families will conclude that high quality test prep is appropriate. Having actual numbers from the PSAT gives significance to college admissions statistics for many families and allows for timely planning if improvements are needed.

Good: Around the country more high schools are administering the PSAT during the school day, making it a convenient time for all students to practice. Schools and districts have the choice of a Saturday or Wednesday administration of the test. By giving the PSAT during school more students are included.

By contrast, fifteen years ago many districts in my area gave the PSAT on a Saturday morning. This meant participation was limited to those students who had transportation and the initiative to show up at school at 8:00 a.m. on the weekend.

Good: Because the PSAT if often given during school, students grades 9-11 are encouraged to take the exam. This means more students have an idea of what the SAT will look like before they reach that crucial testing time junior year. High scoring students can be identified in 9th or 10th grade in time to prepare for the PSAT in 11th grade. And families can begin using scores sooner—both for test prep and college planning. If your high school does not encourage participation for 10th graders, don’t worry; there are suggestions at the end of this article to help you get these same benefits without having to take the official PSAT.

The Bad

Taking the PSAT is not all good. There are some potential drawbacks families should understand.

Bad: More testing (or practice) is not always better. Some students are further ingraining bad test taking habits. Many parents believe that if there student can just take enough practice tests, he or she will improve, but this isn’t the case. Students who continue to approach the PSAT (SAT or ACT) the same way are proven to earn similar scores. In my experience, students are often “perfecting” bad habits rather than learning from mistakes.

Bad: For students with test anxiety, the PSAT can be terrifying. In these cases, the potential risks of having a bad experience on the PSAT may not be worth any of the benefits. Obviously we want students to feel prepared when they take the SAT as juniors, but taking the PSAT with a group at school may not be the best way to help a student who has already demonstrated issues with test anxiety.

Bad: PSAT scores are not available for months. In 2015 students received their scores in January. This means that by the time results are available, students have completely forgotten what they did on test day, undermining potential to learn from one’s mistakes.

Bad: (This is a big one!) In the past few years College Board has gotten much stricter about cheating. (Headline worthy scandals prompted some of these changes.) Currently students who show “too much” improvement from one test to the next may have their improved scores referred to the office of testing integrity (in other words, the office of “we think you cheated.”) Once scores are called into question, students have little recourse other than taking anther SAT under supervised conditions to prove the better score was genuine.

How does this relate to the PSAT? College Board has used PSAT results as points of comparison. The problem I have with this is that too many students don’t take the PSAT seriously. They don’t take any steps to prepare and show up to school with the idea that “It’s just practice and it doesn’t count toward anything.” In fact, some students are only taking the PSAT because it gets them out of classes for the morning. Unfortunately these “practice scores” could be used against a student later when his or her SAT score shows improvement so significant that the College Board questions the validity of those SAT results.

Ideas & Alternatives

First, talk with your high school student about the PSAT. Make sure he or she understands that scores are for practice, but should be taken seriously.

My daughter is in 10th grade and we have discussed how the PSAT can help us see her strengths and weaknesses and decide if it is worth preparing for next year’s exam in hopes of qualifying for National Merit recognition. She understands this isn’t a test for which she needs to stress-out or spend hours preparing. (Hopefully she will have time to work some practice questions after the speech and debate tournament this weekend.) But she understands that on October 19, she needs to give the PSAT her full attention.

If your student is going to experience undue anxiety about testing, speak to your school counselor about an alternative. Or keep your child home from school that morning. As a parent, you know what is best in this case and if the stress of one more standardized test outweighs the benefits, don’t take the PSAT.

If your high school isn’t offering the PSAT or your child is unable to take it due to schedule conflicts or illness, you have other ways to obtain the benefits of PSAT practice. Take the practice PSAT at home under timed conditions. Hopefully you have received PSAT Practice Test #2 from your school’s guidance counselor. If not, ask for it. If the school doesn’t have one, you can use the PSAT Practice Test #1.

The benefits of taking an official College Board practice test some Saturday morning at your kitchen table are

  • It is free. You might have the cost of printing out the pages, but the test won’t cost you anything.
  • You can get your scores the same day. This is huge for the learning and improvement aspect of the test. When a student scores his or her own test then looks over the problems missed, he or she will gain more from the experience than taking a test in October and months later getting some number from College Board.
  • You can participate in the process. I’ve encouraged some parents to get a second copy of the test and take it alongside their student. Even if you don’t test your own abilities, you can participate in an active discussion on what to do to improve and how these results compare to the average scores at colleges in your area.

Of course, these alternatives are intended for the 95% of students who are not attempting to qualify for National Merit Scholarships by taking the PSAT. If you have a junior who is an ultra-high scoring test taker who may miss the PSAT due to illness or other unforeseen circumstances, you need to contact your high school guidance counselor an get in touch with National Merit ASAP to request an alternate method of consideration.

The PSAT is generally a good experience for average test takers. Take time to discuss the importance of taking the test seriously and spend time over the remainder of the school year using the results to maximize improvement and further your college research.

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